A couple of years ago, you couldn’t go a week without hearing about another tech accelerator opening up somewhere in the North of England. Now the traditional accelerator has fallen out of favour, and one of the biggest UK names in the field has evolved its offering into something very different.
Newcastle-based Ignite is now a UK-wide investment programme focused on early-stage startups. It still offers support that helps founders hone their product and business model, but now focuses on remote learning and regular in-person events. Out the window goes the intense, all-in-the-same-room-for-three-months model pioneered in the US by the likes of Y Combinator and Techstars.
“If you look at birth of accelerators in the UK six or seven years ago, and the investment scene then, a lot of that knowledge is commoditised now,” says Ignite’s Managing Director, Tristan Watson. “You can get your prototype out there with a free voucher from Amazon.
“Not time to say the accelerator is dead, but we need to look at why they’re there and how they support companies.”
The distributed accelerator
The new Ignite targets companies that already have a minimum viable product and some users or customers. The challenge these companies face is how to turn that into a proper business. But why change the format from an intense three months in one location, to a looser, more remote approach?
Watson says they can reach more founders this way. “It’s hard to pack up your life and move. You also have to be at a certain point of your life. The traditional accelerator is no good if you have kids, for example.
“Successful founders come from a wide variety of backgrounds. The structure, criteria, restrictions – that’s what’s causing a lack of diversity in applications (to accelerators). It’s imperative that all investors and programmes look at what they’re asking people to do.”
Supporting a different kind of founder
So, the new Ignite can support a wider range of founders, at different stages of their life. Watson says the unconventional approach is working well so far.
Every month, participants get together for a few days to learn from experienced startups and each other. Aside from that, it’s a remote programme. There are regular ‘standups,’ where teams update each other on their progress, and each week there are a few ‘startup MBA’ sessions via video conference. These are taught by recent or current tech entrepreneurs and operators. Ignite teams have learned about Monzo’s early marketing, and Mixcloud’s data-driven development, for example.
Watson says that because of this format, they can archive sessions for future portfolio companies to access on-demand.
“We were curious when we launched about how new structure would work. Would we lose the magic of the cohort effect?,” admits Watson. “But the teams have bonded really well. And there’s a much less ‘prescribed’ curriculum. We’re reactive to startups’ needs.”
So far, Ignite has made four investments under its new format, with two more pegged to join in November. Geographically, the startups spread from Portsmouth in the South, to Hebden Bridge in the North. Their focuses span from microremittance to language education.
The Hebden Bridge-based team is Prolifiko, the brainchild of Bec Evans and Chris Smith. By their own admission, they’re not stereotypical, fresh-out-of-university startup founders. After establishing careers in the writing and publishing world, they came together to develop a product that helps writers with the creative process and finish what they start.
Prolifiko had early success helping a writer complete a novel that ended up being long listed for the MAN Booker Prize. Since then they’ve begun work on a more structured online course. Packaged up in an app, complete with in-app purchases for different modules, it’s designed to boost writers’ confidence. It gives positive reinforcement for building a writing habit, helping users set a goal and reach it in small steps over five days.
Early reactions in testing have been positive. Evans and Smith found that while just 25 percent of users finish the course, 75 percent of those people then pay to continue. On launch, the app will target creative writers, but in time they’ll expand to serve other types of writers like bloggers and content marketers. They have plans to launch audio-based courses, too.
So what’s it like to be a startup in Hebden Bridge? This little town nestled in the hills between Leeds and Manchester has a reputation as the kind of place people from big cities go for a quiet but bohemian-friendly life away from the bright lights. Evans and Smith say this means they’ve found it relatively easy to find local software developers. While there aren’t hordes of coders on tap, the quality level can be high.
With settled lives in Hebden Bridge, they say they’ve found the new Ignite programme to be a good fit. They find themselves more productive working from home. So if they spend the morning on a mentorship call, they then have the rest of the day working in their natural environment to put what they learned into action immediately.
The future of Ignite – and accelerators
Tristan Watson says Ignite will evaluate the new model after a year, but early signs are encouraging him that they’re on the right track.
He says he’ll publicly share what works and what doesn’t about the model, and believes the early-stage accelerator landscape will shift more broadly to geographically distributed programmes. Techstars Anywhere is another example of this approach in action.
“You get an automatic head start if you’re based in London,” says Watson. “There are lots of events where you can meet every type of founder, investor, and advisor….(But) you can build a great company wherever you are.”
Watson believes startups should learn from other parts of the country, which is where Ignite’s off-sites come in. “A company in Manchester should spend time in other cities, for example, so they can explore more opportunities.”
As for the broader investment scene in the UK, Watson says there’s room for improvement. While many London-based investors say they’ll invest across the country, they often have enough dealflow in the capital that that they don’t really need to bother looking further afield. He points to ADV’s UK-wide approach as an encouraging sign (while noting that ADV has invested in Ignite).
He also says more the gap between good angels and good startups must be bridged. That’s something Tech North’s own Angel Network can help with.
The early-stage investment scene is evolving along with the needs of the entrepreneurs it serves. Ignite shows the interests of investors and startups can be aligned without the latter having to bend too far to the former’s will.
Whether this Nobel format pays off for Ignite in the long run remains to be seen. But hey, it wouldn’t be early-stage tech investing if they weren’t taking a punt on the unknown, so why not innovate?